SJ elementary students build cultural bridge to China

Sixteen elementary school students hope to visit China for an exchange program, but they need the community's help. (Photo submitted by ABC7's David Louie)

February 16, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Ambassadors come from all walks of life. There's no better proof of that than walking to a classroom at Washington Elementary in San Jose during lunch recess. Sixteen students, mostly fourth and fifth graders, give up lunch to participate in the China Club. They are learning Mandarin, Chinese culture, and they're doing video exchanges via Skype with an elementary school in Zhongshan, a city in China's Pearl River Delta region near Hong Kong.

Three of the club's members, along with the school principal, will take the exchange one step further. In April, they are going to fly 7,000 miles over the Pacific to visit Hao Chong School.

Most of the students at Washington Elementary are Hispanic, so they are showing their Chinese friends a glimpse of America's diversity. Mandarin Chinese is now their third language, after English and Spanish. To be club members, they must pledge to respect Chinese history, culture and language; to study Mandarin every week, and to walk the Great Wall of China "before I die." They recite that pledge at the beginning of each meeting.

"Dennis Fong always says that if you can speak three languages -- Spanish, English and Mandarin, you can do business with 95 percent of the world. So this is the wave of the future, and we're excited that our children are at the forefront," Washington Elementary School Principal Maria Evans said.

The club has two expert advisors in Fong and Polly Kam. The San Jose couple played a key role in bringing the two schools together. Fong's late father donated money to help build Hao Chong School.

"Well, these are kids from Mexico trying to learn English. Polly and I have a bunch of kids at Hao Chong Elementary School in China and they're learning English, too. Why don't we hook them together so they can learn together?" Fong said.

Fong was introduced to Washington Elementary as a member of San Jose Rotary, which has a special relationship to the school. At Tuesday's club meeting, Kam taught Mandarin lessons. The students are also using a computer-based language program to do individual lessons.

The trip will cost $20,000. The Rotary Foundation has already pledged $5,000 and so have the Fongs. An Asian supermarket chain, Marina, has donated $1,000, so they are actively trying to raise the remaining $9,000 through charitable donations to a fund administered by the Rotary Club. The San Jose delegation is set to go to China on April 9 and a reciprocal exchange from China is set for April 30. The Fongs are also spearheading the drive to pay for the Chinese visit to San Jose.

Erika Morales is the club's secretary and the fourth grader is one of the three students going to China. The 9-year-old hopes to perfect her Chinese and to learn more about Chinese culture and food on the trip. She smiles when she says she enjoys eating Chinese food from Panda Express.

"I want to learn about the history, how they speak and what they learn in school," she said.

To make contributions for the Washington Elementary School trip to China:

San Jose Rotary Club Foundation
1690 Senter Road
San Jose, CA 95112
Attention: Washington Elementary School China Club Trip

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